“Freedom or Being?” – “Yes please!”


In the very old (and ongoing) debate of free will versus determinism, Kant provided a simple but brilliant response – if asked “Free will or determinism?” Kant, in a comedic fashion, could answer “Yes please!” Kant’s argument is essentially that yes we are are trapped in a world of causes but at the same time we are autonomous beings who have choices, but more importantly, we have responsibility. Several folks have pointed out that this is an incoherent argument. Onora O’Neill, for instance stated in “Kantian Ethics” that:

“His account of human knowledge leads to a conception of human beings as parts of nature, whose desires, inclinations and actions are susceptible of ordinary causal explanation. Yet his account of human freedom demands that we view human agents as capable of self-determination, and specifically of determination in accordance with the principles of duty. Kant is apparently driven to a dual view of man: we are both phenomenal (natural, causally determined) beings and noumenal (non-natural, self-determining) beings. Many of Kant’s critics have held that this dual-aspect view of human beings is ultimately incoherent.”

Alenka Zupancic in her amazing text Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan argues that while this may seem (and is) paradoxical that does not mean that is in incoherent. While we are surely determined by our environment, history, knowledge etc. we can essentially decide which one of these things will affect our being. The basic act of freedom then is not so much making a (supposedly) free choice, but is found in the act of refusal, saying yes to a particular deterministic force or another. Kant’s hypothetical (and in Marxist style, Groucho not Karl) “Yes please!” is this kind of refusal. In many ways it could be compared to the discussion of Mu in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values:

“…there’s a third possible logical term equal to yes and no which is capable of
expanding our understanding in an unrecognized direction. We don’t even have a
term for it, so I’ll have to use the Japanese ‘mu’” ‘Mu’ means ‘no thing.’ …No
class, not one, not zero, not yes, not no…. ‘Unask the question’.” (320)

Strangely this ‘yes please!’ is a ‘no’ in that it while it is formally yes it is saying no to the meta-choice implicit in the very asking of the question. Put another way, the question “Determinism or free will” implicitly also asks “Do you accept that we are in a paradigm where those are the two options?” before it asks the ‘actual question.’ Our hypothetical ‘yes please!’ then is not simply the answer of ‘both’ but a no to the meta-question.

So what is this space then, between the yes and no, and how does it relate to Kant’s conception of freedom? Working with Kant and Lacan Zupancic writes:

Alenka Zupancic

“since the subject can chose only freedom, the alternative choice being ruled out by the fact that it would be the choice of non-being or nonexistance – the choice of S, the symbol for the ‘non-subjectivized matter of the subject’. Thus we move to the symbol $, representing the subject marked by a split or divided in her freedom, the subject who thinks of herself as free, but is at the same time excluded from this very freedom.” (40)

Our very being then is ‘incoherent’ because we are forced to be free simply by living. But at the same time we recognize that there are forces that are bigger than us, essentially we recognize the Other. Zupancic goes on to write that it is this encounter that forces the subject to choose their Gesinnung,, or disposition, this is done through an act of spontaneity. (36-37)

There are three levels or forms of subjectivity at work. There is the phenomenal subject which is just another cog in the machine – cause and effect. Then there is the conscious ‘I’ that thinks it’s free and then we have the spontaneous ‘I’ we just mentioned. The important point that Zupancic makes is that if the subject can face the fact that it may only be phenomenal, at the will of the Other, she can see that the lack of the Other because they see that there is no cause of the Other, when we are completely helpless at the hands of the Other we make the decision of freedom.

Back to the earlier topic of yes, no and mu. Is yes not the acceptance of the phenomenal, to be taken by the winds of fate, where the no is the false sense of freedom (of course these could reversed) where mu is the spontaneous act of freedom, the obnoxious “Yes please!” The form is less important then the fact that the mu/yes please kind of answer speaks to the meta-structure, the revelation that there is no cause of the Other and the subject emerges from this revelation. Zupancic writes “There can be no freedom without a subject, yet the very emergence of the subject is already the result of a free act. (41)

We are asked a question (stuck in a choice but given a ‘choice’) by taking in the very ridiculous nature of the question leading to the progression of the subject:

1)I am involved in a question
2)I must freely choose
3)Because my choice is limited, it is not an actual ‘free’ choice
4)The question is lacking, and not an actual question
5)I do not have to answer and therefore I am free

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One Response to ““Freedom or Being?” – “Yes please!””

  1. 1 “¿Libertad o determinismo?” – “¡Sí, por favor!” « PENSAMIENTO DEL VAC√ćO

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